Why you should care
Because a cover-up like this is too tasty to ignore.
Cool Whip, chopped pecans, mini marshmallows, canned pineapple and pistachio pudding mix. The perfect recipe for a refreshing summer dish … or the blueprint for a cover-up of epic proportions?
The dessert known as Watergate Salad became popular in the 1970s and ’80s after Richard Nixon’s sins became America’s publicly aired dirty laundry. It’s a fitting metaphor: sloppy like Nixon’s electioneering, with an icing “cover-up” and a hint of green to remind us that politics is all about following the money. And Watergate Salad, along with its cousin, Watergate Cake (add club soda to cake mix), is as controversial as its namesake at church potlucks and neighborhood picnics.
When Leslie Anne Tarabella’s mother first suggested Watergate Cake for inclusion in a church cookbook, the name “threw some of the church ladies off,” remembers Tarabella, a columnist in Alabama and author of The Majorettes Are Back in Town, a collection of Southern short stories. The committee women decided to change the name to “Pistachio Pudding Cake.” Sure, it lacked pizazz, but that selective editing was not uncommon in the South — where church cookbooks included not just the best recipes but also “a little dose of morality thrown in with the salt and pepper,” as Tarabella puts it.
The green coloring was also something different and it really stood out on a table full of 30 other desserts.
Leslie Anne Tarabella, Alabama columnist
There aren’t many details about the history of the salad. However, there is a link to the Jell-O brand, which started producing pistachio pudding — a key ingredient in the dish — in 1976, a time when the Watergate scandal was still top of mind for many Americans. In either 1985 or 1986, Jell-O Pistachio Flavor Pudding boxes started featuring a similar recipe called Pistachio Pineapple Delight. In 1993, the recipe was changed outright to Watergate Salad and marshmallows were added, according to the archives of the Kraft Heinz Co. “There are several urban myths regarding the name change, but we can’t substantiate any of them,” the company says on its corporate website.
Some sources say the dish was named after the Watergate Hotel, which apparently pioneered it before its name ever became ubiquitous with presidential misdeeds. Intriguingly, Helen Keller published a similar recipe in Famous Recipes of Famous Women, way back in 1922: “I ate it first in California, so I call it Golden Gate Salad,” she wrote.
Regardless of its origins, Watergate Salad remains tasty. Its pistachio base, including that oh-so-Southern ingredient of pudding mix, is “creamy and delicious,” Tarabella says. “The green coloring was also something different, and it really stood out on a table full of 30 other desserts.”
Some people may not care for the nuts in the cake. Different recipes call for different types, but the most common ones in the South are pecans because of their abundance. Still, the most controversial aspect of the dish has little to do with the taste … just the symbolism. “Imagine being so upset with a politician that you didn’t want to use a cake recipe associated with a scandal,” Tarabella says. “If that were the case now, we’d all starve to death.”
Watergate Salad and Cake go by other colloquial names, everything from Green Goddess to Green Goop, depending on your tastes. And, politics aside, the desserts inspire one bipartisan emotion: nostalgia. “Every time I serve it now, someone always comments that their mother made it for them when they were a child,” Tarabella says. Perhaps nothing is more patriotic than serving a dish that reminds you of mama and is named after a crooked president’s scandalous legacy.
- 1 can (20 oz.) crushed pineapple in juice, undrained
- 1 pkg. (3.4 oz.) pistachio flavor instant pudding
- 1 cup miniature marshmallows
- 1/2 cup chopped pecans
- 1 1/2 cups thawed whipped topping
- Directions: Combine first 4 ingredients in a large bowl. Stir in whipped topping. Refrigerate 1 hour.
- 1 pkg. (2-layer size) yellow cake mix
- 1 pkg. (4-serving size) pistachio flavor instant pudding
- 1 cup club soda
- 1/2 cup cooking oil
- 4 eggs
- 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
- 2 tbsp. powdered sugar
- Directions: Preheat oven to 350 F. Put cake mix, pudding mix, soda, oil and eggs in large bowl. Beat with electric mixer on low speed until just moistened. Beat on medium speed 2 minutes, scraping sides of bowl occasionally. Gently stir in walnuts. Pour batter into greased and floured fluted tube pan or 10-inch tube pan. Bake 40 to 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted near center comes out clean. Cool in pan 10 minutes. Remove cake from pan; cool completely on wire rack. Sprinkle with powdered sugar just before serving.
Recipes from MyFoodandFamily.com, the official site of Kraft Heinz Co. brands.